Florida is now the nation’s third largest state. Texas, the nation’s second largest state is reliably Republican now in Presidential elections, though throughout out the period from 1960 to 1988 it performed better for Democrats than Florida in every single election. Since 1992, Florida has outperformed Texas for Democrats in every single election. However, in looking at the trend in Presidential elections in Texas, a lot can be learned about micro-targeting of areas for Florida and the trends we are experiencing in this state being mirrored in other places. It’s important to remember Texas sees almost no Presidential campaigning after the party conventions yet the trends are similar to our state.
Unlike Florida, where Democrats last held a majority of US House seats in the mid 1980’s, Texas continued to elect more Democrats than Republicans to Congress until the radical Tom Delay inspired partisan redraw of 2003 and 2004. Since then Republicans have dominated the Congressional Delegation and the Democrats are down to just three non-African-American or non-Hispanic members, Reps. Lloyd Doggett, Gene Green and Beto O’Rourke. The later two on that list representing heavily minority influenced districts.
Many Democrats in Florida feel an opportunity exists to flip rural areas in the northern tier of the state – particularly in the Big Bend region back to the Democrats. Many of these counties voted Democratic for President as recently as 1996, and supported a Democrat for Governor as recently as 2010. When they last supported a Democrat for President it should be noted that urbanized Orange County which is now one of the most Democratic counties in the state for national elections had gone over 50 years since last supporting a Democratic nominee. Similar rural counties to the Big Bend and Panhandle Counties in Texas supported Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996. Yet by 2012, Republicans were winning between 75% and 85% of the vote in many of these places. The trend line is not terribly different than the same counties in Florida.
By contrast, since we mentioned Orange County let’s look at Dallas County, Texas. Between 1948 and 2004 Dallas County gave the majority of its votes to a Democrat just once – native son Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Still even that year, Johnson performed in the county 13 points worse than his statewide percentage. Much like Orange County, Bill Clinton lost Dallas County twice while carrying small rural southern counties in different parts of the state. But in 2008, President Obama carried the county by 16 points over John McCain and posted the same margin in 2012. Like Dallas County, our own Orange County mirrors a national trend of urban areas especially those with large numbers of Hispanics shifting sharply toward the Democrats in national elections.
Jefferson County, Texas which features the city of Beaumont, the most unionized place in the state has not supported a Republican for President since Richard Nixon. The area was long represented by Jack Brooks in Congress, one of the few southern whites to vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the man who fell on his sword to support gun control legislation as Judiciary Chair in 1994. Brooks lost the 1994 election to right-wing Republican Steve Stockman who was so connected with the fringe on the right that he even penned an article claiming the Waco Raid had been an Administration plot to push for gun control.
The area has continued to support Democrats but the margins have been dwindling, and President Obama barely carried the county in 2012. Jefferson County reminds me a great deal of Volusia County here in Florida. From 1976 until 2008 Volusia voted more Democratic then the rest of the state. But in 2012, as President Obama was carrying the state, Volusia flipped to Mitt Romney. The county has also become more Republican in state elections, last supporting a Democrat for Governor in 1994. Jefferson like Volusia had a strong union influence but has a very southern flavor to it – and the trend line in elections is eerily similar.
Another point of reference is the border area. McAllen, Texas is the largest urbanized center along the US-Mexico border. In this day of immigrant-bashing, Hidalgo County which includes McAllen is now producing over 70% of its votes for Democrats. The neighboring heavily-Hispanic rural counties are even MORE Democratic than Hidalgo, with Obama winning between 75% and 85% in many of them in 2012, as Romney was carrying the state by 16 points.
The counties outside Dallas and Houston which have been populated by residents who were moving based on what we call “white-flight” in recent decades have become more Republican much like our Clay, Pasco and Hernando Counties here in Florida.
Texas has more rural southern and western influenced areas than Florida so it is more Republican. But the similarities between rural voting, exurban voting, suburban voting, urban voting and Hispanic voting are unmistakable. So what’s the point in mentioning this? Time and again, Florida’s Democrats look for solutions based on internal Florida data and lamenting the loss of Democratic votes in rural areas and not fully grasping why votes have swung the way they have. I have been guilty of some this type of thinking as well. What looking at similar areas in other states reminds us of, is that much of this is out of the control of Florida’s Democratic Party or individual campaigns. National trends and the continued polarization of the electorate are unmistakable. Even from Texas, a state that sees little Presidential campaigning because of its status as “safe Republican,” a lot can be learned from where Democrats do well and where they do not. These are important lessons to comprehend and move forward based on.